NIMS-ICS & the Private Sector - Good Fit, or a Stretch?

Since the promulgation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) almost a decade ago there has been considerable discussion of two of the primary guidelines involved. First, NIMS is intended to provide a template for consistent preparedness, prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery efforts expected to be carried out – principally by government entities. Second, it also is intended to create and develop a cohesive management system – i.e., the Incident Command System (ICS) – that would bring together agencies at all levels of government (local, federal, state, and tribal) to facilitate integrated command and management, one of the five basic structural components of NIMS. Fundamental to both of these assumptions is the notion that NIMS (and, therefore, ICS) is primarily, if not exclusively, designed for government use.

However, following the intense scrutiny of both NIMS and the National Response Plan in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane season – particularly in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – officials at all levels of government began a sometimes painful “lessons learned” process that has led to the realization that government is not – and cannot be – the only “emergency responder” called on when major events occur, particularly those of a catastrophic nature.

In fact, an interesting discovery made in the aftermath of the two hurricanes was that some of the most significant response “success stories” were achieved by the private sector. Major corporations such as Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot became pivotal players in the initial response operations – providing the materials, services, and support personnel desperately needed not only to meet the immediate requirements of the states and local jurisdictions involved but also to sustain long-term recovery operations.

In addition, numerous private-sector companies deployed their assets – skilled workers, equipment, and a broad spectrum of other supplies and materials – to support the federal, local, and state government responses. For example, power companies – both private corporations and “cooperatives” – deployed thousands of workers to assist in the restoration of electricity to the stricken areas. Similar support was provided by many other private utility services to restore communications and to both repair and shore up critical infrastructure – much of which, of course, was not and is not government-owned and/or operated. What is often still overlooked, more than five years later, is the fact that those and other response efforts were neither spontaneous nor incidental.

Mutual Aid – As and When Needed

One of the key components of the NIMS Command and Management guidelines involves the quick and effective use of mutual-aid agreements, according to Steve Chafin, manager of the Emergency Preparedness Center for Dominion Virginia Power; Dominion is part of the Southeastern Electric Exchange – which is composed of 20 electric utilities that have agreed to cooperatively share their collective resources to assist other members if and when needed and requested.

The system employed by the Southeastern Electric Exchange meets what might be called the “NIMS taste test” for mutual-aid agreements. If a member utility has a need and makes a specific request for assistance, another member (or members) that can assist will provide the resources needed – including skilled workers. Here it is worth noting that the cooperation and coordination principles involved are usually transparent not only to the government agencies participating but also to the general public. In major cities and small towns all over the country, in fact, local residents have seen workers and supervisors from other states setting new power lines following an ice storm, flood, or other natural disaster. (Actually, the use of mutual-aid agreements started well before the 9/11 attacks and therefore pre-dates NIMS.)

At Dominion Virginia Power, according to Chafin, the company follows an “Almost NIMS” concept of emergency operations for service restoration. The term “Almost NIMS” indicates the realization that some of the terminology used by Virginia Power for many years does not directly “comply” with the NIMS guidelines. For example, if the utility receives a request for a substantial number of workers, including many specialists, to assist another member of the Exchange, the company will deploy its so-called “Dominion Contingent,” a team that typically consists of 50 to 52 personnel, including supervisors and safety specialists, as well as the equipment needed to carry out the operations for which the contingent had been requested.

Differences in Terminology Are Not Necessarily Terminal

Depending on the level of need specified, the Dominion Contingent may respond: (a) with the expectation of being accommodated by the requesting utility; or (b) with the capability to be fully self-sustaining – for the duration of the deployment, if necessary. For planning as well as operational purposes, however, the Contingent should be considered basically as what it is – namely, a pre-designated, pre-planned organizational structure. In NIMS terminology, therefore, the Dominion Contingent may function as a Task Force, a Strike Team, or even a geographically oriented Branch. It is not, though, an ad hoc or ad-libbed unit or organization, and in that respect is also consistent with the NIMS guidelines.

Nonetheless, and no matter what terminology is used, the Contingent’s organizational framework and tactical management are virtually the same as those described in ICS under NIMS – despite the fact that Dominion Virginia Power itself does not use those terms.

According to Steve Wood, a nuclear emergency preparedness specialist for Dominion Virginia Power, NIMS guidelines have been “adopted” for the company’s nuclear-power generation system. Dominion operates two nuclear power stations in the Commonwealth: the Surry Nuclear Power Station in southeastern Virginia; and the North Anna Nuclear Power Station in central Virginia. If and when an emergency situation starts to evolve, the company, following guidelines consistent with NIMS precepts, dispatches the personnel needed: (1) to integrate with emergency-management personnel in the Virginia Emergency Operations Center; and (2) to serve in local emergency operations centers and the Commonwealth’s Joint Information Center.

In addition, depending on the nature of the incident, the company also will provide qualified personnel to work in an “Intelligence and Investigations” capacity with local, state, and/or federal law-enforcement authorities. According to Wood, personnel in key positions are sometimes on duty assignments 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The company also has worked to achieve functional communications interoperability by developing a cache of pre-positioned equipment accessible to the key personnel responsible for carrying out pre-assigned duties.

Cooperation, Coordination, and Basic Principles

Dominion Virginia Power is a member of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), which is based in Atlanta, Georgia. INPO routinely coordinates with all members to provide technical or specialty resources if and when needed. If an INPO member utility needs qualified radiological analysts, for example, the Institute will coordinate the search for and deployment of such specialists from other utility members. (This search-and-deploy task is yet another example of the pre-planned mutual-aid coordination consistent with, but pre-dating, the basic NIMS tenets.)

Chafin points out that Dominion Virginia Power follows a fundamental operational principle that has been successful for many years: “Centralized Planning with localized execution.” And Wood emphasizes a corollary principle – namely, that emergency management is based on sound management. Fundamentally, he says, “the basics are still the basics.”

Viewed in a broader context, it is obvious that the basic principles of management, whether for emergencies or routine operational situations, revolve around the same functional needs – Command, Planning, Operations, Logistics, and Finance and Administration, all of which are fundamental elements of the federal Incident Command System.

In short, there should and can no longer be any doubt that the private sector must be closely integrated with government agencies to ensure the effectiveness of comprehensive emergency-management operations. Also, if one example can serve as an appropriate leading indicator, the foundation for effective NIMS and ICS applications already exists – in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Moreover, any differences in terminology that might still exist do not necessarily, therefore, translate into any real differences in operations.

Stephen Grainer

Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.



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